It’s normal to forget things sometimes. But some more serious memory and thinking problems may signal the condition MCI. Here’s what you need to know.
You can still rattle off the lyrics to your favorite song from the summer you turned 16. And you’re pretty sure you know the names of all the state capitals. But where exactly did you leave your glasses? And who is that person you ran into at the supermarket?
Everybody forgets things once in a while. But if it happens a lot, or if you’re forgetfulness is coupled with other thinking problems, it could be more than just normal aging. You might have mild cognitive impairment (MCI). About 8 percent of people between ages 65 and 69 have it, according to the American Academy of Neurology. And that number goes up as the years tick by: More than a quarter of those between 80 and 84 have MCI.
But don’t panic. “People with MCI aren’t disabled in any way,” says Gary Kennedy, M.D., a geriatric psychiatrist at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York. “It may be troublesome, but it’s not dementia. And it’s not dangerous.”
With MCI, you have small problems with mental skills like memory or thinking. But you can still manage things you need to do.
Concerned about a friend or family member — or noticing worrisome changes in yourself? Here’s what you need to know about MCI.
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What is mild cognitive impairment?
A 2022 poll conducted by the Alzheimer’s Association found that 82 percent of Americans have never heard of MCI. And when they’re told about it, most said that it sounds like “normal aging.” But it’s more than that.
MCI brings on some problems with thinking and remembering, and they’re a little worse than people of the same age and similar backgrounds, explains a report from Yale Medicine.
For example, you might be getting to your book club meetings and doctor visits on time. But instead of juggling appointments in your head like you used to, you have to write them down in your calendar, put them in your smart phone, and post sticky notes all over the house. You’re mostly fine — but sometimes you feel frustrated that it’s not as easy as it used to be.
What are the symptoms of mild cognitive impairment to look out for?
More than 13 million Americans have MCI, according to a 2021 report in the journal Alzheimer’s Dementia. Some have the type that affects their memory. Others have trouble paying attention or making decisions.
Either way, the National Institute on Aging (NIA) notes the symptoms of mild cognitive impairment include:
- Becoming more forgetful
- Struggling to remember dates
- Having trouble making plans or solving problems
- Being easily distracted
- Grasping for words
“One of the things that is not a sign of MCI is having difficulty with names,” says Dr. Kennedy. “As we get older, we all get a little worse at name recognition. But more often than not, those names come back to us.”
Other normal signs of aging: Our spelling and math skills slow down a little bit, too.
What causes mild cognitive impairment?
Nobody’s exactly sure what causes MCI.
Age, of course, is a big risk factor. And there seems to be a genetic link, too. Other health conditions can also play a part. People with depression, heart disease, stroke, or diabetes have a higher chance of developing MCI.
But the NIA points out that there’s probably not one single cause.
What is the difference between mild cognitive impairment and dementia?
Having MCI is not a guarantee that you’ll develop Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. Studies show that only 10 to 15 percent of people with MCI ever develop dementia.
With MCI, you can still manage your everyday activities. With Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia, on the other hand, symptoms are much more severe. You might find that your memory gets progressively worse, and you can’t do ordinary tasks you used to take for granted.
“Forgetting someone’s name now and then is one thing,” says Dr. Kennedy. “But I’d be really concerned when you forget emotionally important things, like where you met your spouse, or if you don’t recognize a loved one.”
Another sign that may point to dementia? When you begin to notice changes in your personality.
“If you have dementia, driving and shopping can be dangerous,” says Dr. Kennedy. “You may lose your sense of direction or mismanage your credit cards or sideswipe the toll booth.”
MCI, on the other hand, is usually much milder. Many people have MCI for years (or even decades) without it getting worse. And sometimes, people who are diagnosed with MCI may return to normal thinking.
A recent study looked at nearly 3,000 older adults with normal thinking ability. Over the next 6 years, 752 of them developed MCI. Two years later, just 12.9 percent of those with MCI had progressed to dementia.
Even more encouraging: Of those 752 people who developed MCI, just under half had no impairment after two years. The study was published in 2022 in the journal Neurology.
“Your impairment may be temporary,” says Dr. Kennedy. “You may be recovering from illness, or under stress, or just preoccupied with something else.”
If I’m worried about MCI, what should I do?
It may be hard to admit that you’re having problems, but that’s the first — and most important — step.
“See your doctor and get started,” says Andrew Dorsch, M.D., a neurologist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. “It may be anxiety producing, but you’ve got to raise the alarm.”
Here are two important steps to follow once you notice symptoms of MCI.
Visit your family doctor. “That’s the best place to start, since they know you,” says Dr. Dorsch. “They’ll check all your systems and do routine lab work. That can give them a feel for what’s keeping your brain from working as efficiently as it should.”
For instance, is your heart not pumping enough blood to your brain? Do you have breathing issues, like asthma? Are you taking medications that could affect your memory?
Your doctor will also do an initial cognitive screening test. (It might be as simple as asking you to remember three words and draw a clock showing what time it is.) Sometimes, if they can help you manage a physical problem, like heart disease, the MCI may be corrected, too.
See a specialist. After your doctor has ruled out any causes of MCI caused by physical illness, they’ll refer you to a specialist with expertise in cognitive impairment. A geriatric psychiatrist or a neurologist, who specializes in brain health, will do more cognitive screenings and imaging studies, like an MRI. They’ll also ask detailed questions about the kinds of problems you’re experiencing.
What can I do for mild cognitive impairment?
There’s no cure for MCI. But there are things you can do right now to slow down its progression. A well-recognized study in Finland (reported in The Lancet) showed that a program of diet and exercise helped older adults boost their thinking by 25 percent.
That’s a good place to start. Here are six simple ways to slow down (or prevent) cognitive decline now.
Move more. “Even moderate walking is good for your brain,” says Dr. Kennedy. “Your brain is a computer, but it’s also a muscle that needs to be conditioned. Just like your heart and muscles benefit from exercise, so does your brain.”
That’s because your neurons, or brain cells, don’t divide and reproduce like the other cells in your body. Instead, every day you make brand-new ones in a process called neurogenesis. MCI, though, slows that process down.
“Exercise helps promote neurogenesis,” says Dr. Kennedy. “If there’s a fountain of youth, it’s exercise.”
A 2020 study looking at nearly a quarter-million people with MCI found that those who exercised more than twice a week had better blood flow to their brains, boosted their memory, and were less likely to develop dementia than those who didn’t work out. The study was published in Alzheimer’s Research and Therapy.
Recommended reading: 5 Great Exercises to Boost Your Brain Health
Think positive. A good attitude goes a long way to better cognitive health.
In a 2023 study from Yale University, researchers looked at more than 1,700 older adults who had been diagnosed with MCI. They divided them into two groups, depending on their yes-or-no answer to this question: The older I get, the more useless I feel.
The results: Over the next 12 years, the positive age-belief group had a 30.2 percent greater likelihood of recovery from MCI than those who had negative beliefs.
Connect with others. One of the keys to keeping your brain healthy, says Dr. Kennedy, is being around other people. “Isolation is bad for your brain, so stay engaged,” he advises. “Call the kids and the grandkids. Check in with your old friends.”
After all, loneliness is one of the biggest risk factors for dementia. Consider joining a club or a support group, or striking up a conversation at the coffee shop.
A 2020 review in Alzheimer’s & Dementia Journal of 13 studies on aging found that people who got together regularly with friends and family had a lower risk of mild cognitive impairment. Plus, those who had MCI were less likely to have their condition progress into dementia.
Stick to a healthy diet. Nutritious food is the secret to good health. It helps keep your body and brain healthy. Aim for meals that focus on plants, like the Mediterranean diet, which features lots of vegetables, fruits, nuts, and olive oil (and just a little meat or fish).
A 2022 review in Frontiers in Nutrition of more than 1,700 studies found that the Mediterranean diet was connected with better thinking and improved memory. Researchers say it can help prevent or delay cognitive disorders like MCI.
Keep learning. Wrap your head around something completely new, from woodworking to bird watching, from speaking Italian to knitting a hat.
How come? First, because learning is fun and a great way of connecting with other people. Second, because it builds up your “cognitive reserve.” That’s your ability to keep your brain power strong.
Consider a new hobby, a class at the local college or community center, or a book club at the library. A 2019 review in the journal BMJ Open shows that activities like these increase your cognitive reserve while cutting your chances of developing MCI.
See our sources:
Understanding MCI: Alzheimer’s Association
Prevalence of MCI in the U.S.: Alzheimer’s Dementia
What is MCI: National Institute on Aging
Link between exercise and MCI risk: Alzheimer’s Research and Therapy
Role of positive-age beliefs and MCI: JAMA Network Open
Link between social connections and MCI risk: Alzheimer’s & Dementia
Link between Mediterranean diet and MCI risk: Frontiers in Nutrition
Continued learning and MCI: BMJ Open
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